A MIDI controller is often one of the first accessories producers purchase when fleshing out their home studios. This valuable and versatile piece of equipment primarily lets users play their collection of software instruments, as well as provide some tactile interaction with certain DAW features. At the end of the day, a controller is first and foremost a keyboard, and it can actually be used to control hardware. The best desktop synths free up valuable studio space and are controlled by a universal MIDI controller to eliminate superfluous keyboards.
What Is a Desktop Synth?
A desktop synth is namely a synthesizer without a keyboard. They generate and manipulate sound using the same circuitry and features as a standalone synthesizer, but you control them with external devices. One of the greatest advantages of desktop synthesizers is a practical one, in that they can be a space-saving solution to a large collection of full-size synths.
What to Look for in a Good Desktop Synth
The sound engine itself is going to be a critical feature to keep an eye on. How many oscillators, filters, envelopes, and modulation capabilities a desktop synth has is important for all users. The actual type of synthesis, such as analog, digital, wavetable, FM, subtractive, etc., is a keystone feature as well.
Also consider whether a synth is monophonic or polyphonic, and in the latter’s case, how many simultaneous voices it can produce. This will have a huge impact on the type of compositions you can create with any given desktop synth. You should additionally have a close look at the layout and interface in order to determine whether it seems intuitive or approachable — especially if you’re a first-timer. Synthesis, in general, can be a little daunting at first, but certain designs make it easy for anyone to generate awesome sound quickly.
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Size and portability is definitely a consideration, too. Desktop synths run smaller by design, but there’s still lots of variety out there depending on the room you may or may not have to house one. Finally, budget is likely to be a major factor for everyone. Keyboard-less synthesizers can still be pricey, although there are absolutely models out there for most budgets.
The 6 Best Desktop Synths for Home Use & Live Performance
Moog is the mother of all synthesizers. One of the biggest names in all of synthesizer history, their legacy precedes them. The Mother-32 is a semi-modular monophonic desktop synth oozing with classic analog synth character. A MIDI input allows for external control, so dial in a sound and play it with your favorite controller. It also includes a 32-step sequencer and a ton of Moog-worthy features for true analog synthesis in a tabletop, Eurorack-ready module.
The original SH-101, released in 1983 and now renowned for its substantial bass and buzzing analog-style tones, is reimagined in this desktop module. One massive improvement over the previous monophonic design is four-voice polyphony. This naturally gives users a lot more flexibility to craft truly unique sounds. This lovely portable unit can run on AA batteries or USB bus power for a backpack-ready solution to ’80s synthesis.
Behringer’s TD-3-MO is an all-analog desktop bass synthesizer. For over 30 years, this nifty little synth and sequencer has helped carve out the signature sounds of techno, house, acid house, and other EDM styles. In the earliest days of the synthesizer, hardcore users realized they could heavily mod the circuitry. This version of the synth includes some of those most popular mods (the “MO” in the name stands for “modded out!”). Don’t let the price fool you; this is a deeply rich desktop synthesizer with a ton of mojo.
Moog’s Minitaur, based on the Taurus 3, is a compact and powerful analog bass synth. Easily one of the coolest features is its physical layout, that merely consists of a bunch of large knobs. This type of hands-on design is extremely intuitive and approachable. Plus, the sound is quintessentially analog Moog, and the ability to edit patches using the Minitaur Plugin or Standalone Editor adds a touch of modern convenience to classic analog synthesis.
The ASM Hydrasynth is an eight-voice, polyphonic, digital wavetable synthesizer. What’s truly exceptional about this desktop synth is its 32-slot modulation matrix for unrivaled control over each and every aspect of the sound. Despite being an incredibly powerful synthesizer capable of all manner of sounds, it retains just enough intuitiveness for beginners to get involved. Regular firmware updates keep the Hydrasynth fresh as well.
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Korg’s Minilogue XD is a four-voice hybrid analog/digital synthesizer. The sound engine begins with a pair of analog VCOs, a digital “multi engine” with three of its own styles of sound generator, and a prominent stereo effects engine. The Minilogue is not only a great starter synth for beginners, but an exceptional tool for experienced synth-heads, too.